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Twitter sets unclear precedent, raises new questions by fact-checking Trump tweets

President Donald Trump points during a "Rolling to Remember Ceremony," to honor the nation's veterans and POW/MIA, from the Blue Room Balcony of the White House, Friday, May 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump points during a "Rolling to Remember Ceremony," to honor the nation's veterans and POW/MIA, from the Blue Room Balcony of the White House, Friday, May 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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President Donald Trump raged against Twitter Wednesday after the site flagged two of his posts as “potentially misleading,” threatening to shut down social media platforms he believes censor conservative voices, while experts questioned how much Twitter truly accomplished by venturing into fact-checking political content.

“Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” a message posted beneath Trump’s tweets Tuesday said, attempting to contextualize claims by Trump that states increasing access to absentee ballots would lead to a “Rigged Election.” The message linked to a page that repeatedly called Trump’s allegations false and stressed that mail-in voting is already widely used across the country.

"These Tweets contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots," a Twitter spokesperson told CNN. "This decision is in line with the approach we shared earlier this month."

Trump initially lashed out Tuesday night, accusing Twitter of interfering in the election and trying to stifle free speech, suggesting he would not allow it to continue. He escalated his threats Wednesday, warning Republicans would “strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”

The president proposed no specific recourse, and any attempt to retaliate against a private business for attempting to limit the spread of misinformation about election integrity would surely face legal and political obstacles. Trump’s own regulatory agencies have shown little appetite to tell social media platforms what to do, and Democrats in Congress would reject any push to protect the president’s ability to baselessly accuse them of engaging in mass voter fraud.

Social media platforms have walked a very thin line in the Trump era, refusing to fact-check most political posts in the name of free expression but making occasional exceptions in the name of the public good. Twitter and Facebook have sought to limit misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and posts that undermine the integrity of the election process, but the standards are nebulous and difficult to enforce consistently.

The results have rarely satisfied anyone on either side of the political divide, and Twitter’s actions Tuesday were no different. Although Trump and his allies insisted Twitter had gone too far, Democrats complained it had not gone nearly far enough by leaving the tweets up and not making any effort to police other false claims by the president.

“In terms of public opinion concerns, the flags don't solve much,” said Nick Bowman, an associate professor at the Texas Tech University College of Media and Communication and associate editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. “Folks who support Trump will see these flags as more evidence of how their candidate is being unfairly persecuted, and folks who are against Trump will see these flags as a courageous move towards combating misinformation.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, offered no objection to Twitter’s actions, suggesting social media companies should hold all politicians accountable for inaccurate posts.

"I'm of the view that social media companies have to reexamine whether or not — for example, if you put something out saying that — that same outlandish thing that the president thinks... they should say it's not true," Biden told CNN.

Twitter decided to flag Trump’s tweets about mail-in voting on the same day it opted not to take any action over tweets by the president falsely implicating MSNBC host Joe Scarborough in the death of a former aide, despite impassioned pleas from the alleged victim’s family to remove them.

“This move raises the question of whether they are going to consistently flag the president’s tweets that contain misinformation,” said Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor of communication studies at West Virginia University. “Will they flag every misleading tweet from here on out? Will they retroactively flag misleading tweets he has issued in the past? The precedent this action sets is still unclear at this point.”

According to Mike Horning, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech who studies how audiences react to fact-checking, Twitter may need to define more clearly what is and is not acceptable in light of this action because the president is far from the only person spreading misinformation on the platform. Applying any standard consistently without fueling perceptions of bias could prove difficult.

“How will Twitter go about choosing what things to fact-check and what things shouldn’t matter?” he asked. “Will it fact-check only public figures? Will it fact-check all the claims out there that people make all the time that aren’t true? Will it fact-check corporate claims, advertising?”

Twitter has also faced some criticism from journalists for the fact-check itself, which conflated different forms of mail voting and somewhat overstated the security of absentee ballots. While there is no evidence of the widespread fraud Trump alleges and most of the risks can be mitigated, experts say voting by mail is more vulnerable to manipulation than in-person voting.

“You only have to go back to 2018 to find an example of an election that had to be tossed out due to mail-in ballot fraud. You can argue mail-in ballot fraud is rare but it indisputably happens,” wrote Ars Technica reporter Timothy Lee.

The president has often complained about anecdotal reports of censorship of conservative content by social media platforms. Companies have aggressively disputed those claims, and an internal audit at Facebook led by a former Republican senator found no evidence of systemic bias.

Given that ingrained skepticism among the president’s supporters, though, experts say the effect of Twitter flagging Trump’s claims as dishonest could be the opposite of what was intended. Some research indicates fact-checking can reinforce partisans’ belief in a false statement.

“People who are already motivated to disagree with Trump—or anyone whose tweets are flagged for having misinformation—might become a bit more educated about the claims, but people who already agree with the misinformation are likely to both (a) read and share the headlines and (b) interpret the flags as yet more evidence of a corrupt and stifling conspiracy from the social media firms,” Bowman said.

President Trump’s Twitter feed is filled with claims that are, at best, misleading and, in many cases, objectively untrue. He has regularly accused public figures of crimes without evidence, including murder and election fraud, and he frequently stokes unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. That these two were the first of those many tweets that Twitter has acted upon leads Cohen to doubt any suggestion the site is biased against Trump.

“The fact that Twitter has been slow to flag any of the presidents’ tweets which have been deemed to be false or misleading by other fact-checking sources, while they flag other public figure’s tweets in the past suggests to me that, rather than being biased against the president, Twitter has given him more leeway by not enforcing their optional flagging policy, until now,” she said.

Some Republican lawmakers have long claimed the statute that protects social media platforms from liability for content users post also prohibits them from moderating content like this. However, many legal experts say that is a misreading of the law, which they say allows platforms to set and enforce their content policies without maintaining neutrality.

“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act doesn’t actually condition immunity on whether a social media company is a ‘forum’ and not a ‘publisher.’ Looks like we need another Twitter fact check here,” said law professor Steve Vladeck in response to a tweet by Sen. Marco Rubio claiming social media platforms that exercise an editorial role should no longer be protected.

As the president and the White House continued casting doubt on the integrity of mail balloting in subsequent tweets, it appeared Twitter’s flagging of Trump’s posts did little more than inspire new doubts on the right about the company’s fairness. However, as platforms like Twitter and Facebook take on a larger role in campaign communications, it is not clear that staying out of the business of moderating political content is still a viable option for social media sites.

“It should not be seen as a political act to call out any public servant when they make statements that are simply false,” Bowman said. “However, for any sort of flagging to be viewed as non-biased, Twitter would have to clearly and publicly apply as much scrutiny to statements from all political persuasions. All of this is confounded when we consider how ‘truth’ works in American politics, however -- when we blend belief with reality.”

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